Crowning an Ultimate Chef

Senior living company promotes healthy eating, camaraderie with nationwide cooking competition.
BRENTWOOD, Tenn.—Brookdale Senior Living recently launched its Ultimate Chef America culinary competition with a stop in Phoenix. The competition is designed to promote healthy dining for seniors, build teamwork across the company’s chefs and communities, and educate residents and the greater community about progress in senior culinary services.

Brookdale Senior Living has more than 565 communities and 53,600 residents in 36 states. The company offers assisted living, independent living, continuing care retirement communities, Alzheimer’s and dementia care, skilled nursing and in-home care.

“Ultimate Chef America is a dynamic culinary competition,” said Joska Hajdu, senior vice president of senior dining services. “Brookdale always has been very much a hospitality and culinary-focused company. We were really looking to highlight some of our culinary talent and some of the culinary expertise within our company. So the idea of doing a cook off or culinary competition between some of our chefs came up.”

Hajdu said the original idea was to have one culinary competition, but the idea quickly expanded. “As we spent more time talking about the idea we realized the value of doing it as a nationwide tour,” Hajdu said. He added that companies such as Nestlé and Advance Food joined the growing program as sponsors, allowing the concept to expand to a national scale.

Touring the nation: The Ultimate Chef America culinary competition tour consists of six stops: Phoenix, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla. The cities represent each of the company’s six geographical divisions. At each stop two teams of four chefs cook a four-course meal, which is judged on taste, presentation and creativity. The events are judged by a group of celebrity judges, which include a prominent member of the local community and a resident who is selected for his or her involvement in culinary arts during his or her life.

The chefs are selected through an online registration process to compete in the contest. Each registrant provides a recipe, background information and an essay on why the chef feels he or she qualifies for the event or how his or her culinary career has impacted his or her life. Each division has a nominating committee, which selects the chefs for the competition.

“There is a lot of diversity among the chefs,” said Holly Botsford, public relations manager. “One of the chefs in the Dallas competition is well known for her pastries and there is one chef who grew up in Mexico City and is very influenced by that.”

Each chef must prepare one course for the event and nothing can be prepped before the competition begins. All cooking must be done on a six-foot outdoor barbecue grill during the two-hour cooking time. The dishes must be healthy, meaning they comply with the American Heart Association’s guidelines. They must also contain “brain” or “super foods,” which help stimulate brain growth and function. The recipes from the competition as well as those provided by the chefs for registration are being compiled for an Ultimate Chef America cookbook.

Some of the dishes in the Phoenix event, which was held in January, included a grilled chicken and goat cheese salad, grilled sea bass with a balsamic syrup and red pepper coulis, mushroom risotto timbale, grilled spaghetti vegetables, and grilled mango and poached pear with a fruit yogurt sauce.

The teams are given group awards such as best presentation or best taste at the event. In addition to the team award, each chef is judged individually on taste, presentation and creativity. The chef with the most points at the end of the year is named the Ultimate Chef America for 2010.

Resident interaction: Hajdu said the event encompasses Brookdale’s Optimum Life concept, a guide to aging well. One of Optimum Life’s core ideas is social interaction. During the Ultimate Chef America event, which is held on one of Brookdale’s campuses, the residents from the host community and communities in the area are invited to participate.

“As the idea developed, our residents said, ‘Hey, we want to be a part of this also,’” Hajdu said. The residents create artwork, which is auctioned off during the event or online. The proceeds go to the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation, an organization that works to elevate the national consciousness of caregivers and helps create a community for caregivers of people with chronic illnesses like Alzheimer’s.

“We just had the first event in Phoenix, which was a huge success, and we had several residents with Alzheimer’s who created art that was available in the silent auction,” Hajdu said. “It was quite touching.”

Education: While the culinary competition is the main focus of the events, there are several other components such as educational seminars. Three seminars are held at each event. The first is about the benefit of drinking wine for seniors, which includes a wine tasting event. The second is The Art of Seasoning, where attendees are taught how to make their food flavorful without adding salt. The third seminar is taught by Brookdale’s medical director, Dr. Kevin O’Neil, who talks about the healing powers of food and the importance food plays in the aging process.

Another component is a tasting event. “Other than the food that is being prepared for the judging part of the competition, we also have what we call our tasting event, and that is a huge sampling of some of our menu items that we are most proud of,” Hajdu said. “We have an entire team of chefs who are making little sample sizes of some of our favorite dishes. That’s available to all the folks who are attending the event.”

“These tastings are very sophisticated. What we are trying to do is to expel any of those rumors that exist on senior dining, like the meatloaf and mashed potatoes train of thought,” Botsford said. “This event is for an extremely sophisticated palate and that comes across very clearly. All of the feedback that I have heard is that everyone is very impressed and in awe of the food that is prepared. We get the same feedback from our residents.”

The tasting menu at the Phoenix event included lobster and shrimp bisque with fresh tarragon, grilled Gulf shrimp with fresh avocado and mango salsa, and apple and fennel roast pork tenderloin with an apple cranberry chutney.

Each of the six stops along the Ultimate Chef America tour is videotaped and shown to other communities that couldn’t attend. It is also broadcast on Brookdale’s Web site.